Saturday, September 29, 2012

Hospital Visit?

Dorcas' niece. I couldn't help but take her picture while I waited.
In an effort to learn all I can about the hospitals and healthcare systems in Mozambique despite the deafening silence coming from the Ministry of Health, I traveled to Gondola --the nearest town to our mission compound-- to try and visit the maternity ward.

Even though Carlos --the director of Rubitano-- had informed me that going there for a visit would an exercise in futility, I was willing to push on any doors. Perhaps God would grant me favor. Perhaps not. But I had to try.

What else was I going to do? I’d been in Mozambique coming on three weeks (by this time) and was no closer to meeting anyone with information.

Why not launch a full-scale frontal attack?

I’d just walk up to the hospital and try to get a mini-tour. The problem, of course, was the language. I needed someone to introduce me... and to translate for me when I got in.

For me that person was Dorcas.

Dorcas and her newborn girl. She's only a few weeks old.
Dorcas is a beautiful girl in her mid-twenties. She was orphaned young and grew up at Maforga. She trained as a teacher, then married a few years later. A few weeks before I got to Maforga, she delivered prematurely. She still had contacts at the hospital from when she’d attended it for prenatal care. Perhaps these contacts would open doors.

A girl could hope, right?

So we arranged to meet early one day and walk to the hospital together to have a look around. We took her newborn girl with us, wrapping her in a cocoon of blankets and hats. All that could be seen were her long eyelashes atop rounded cheeks the size of plums.

She was tiny... and yet perfect in every way.

Dorcas' mother-in-law preparing lunch in her outdoor kitchen.
Navigating the dusty streets of Gondola was tiring and hot. And due to the package we toted, it took us about an hour to reach the hospital from Dorcas house.

Nevertheless, our trek was insightful if not beautiful; it weaved us past markets and through courtyards. Motorbikes zipped past in a fury, dodging semis switch-backing down the Beira Corridor as fast as the police would permit.

The Beira Corridor is a paved two-lane ‘highway’ that connects Zimbabwe to Beira --a large costal city in central Mozambique. Because it’s paved and has fewer pot holes than most Mozambican roads, it is the route of choice for semi-trucks. Day and night they barrel down at break-neck speeds, racing to meet their destinations... or their deaths.

Conversation was difficult until we could get off the main road, but then Dorcas opened up about her life. We chatted happily all the way to the hospital, stopping for baby formula which she bought from an Indian merchant at inflated prices.

-- “Why are you giving formula?” I asked as sweetly as I could. I didn’t want her to feel judged. “Did you have trouble breastfeeding?”
-- “Yes. Since she was two months early, she just wouldn’t suck properly,” she explained. “I tried and tried... but when she wasn’t growing I knew she needed formula.”

Once we got to the hospital, I whipped out my camera then hesitated.
-- “Can I take photos here?” I questioned my guide.
-- “Yes! No problem,” she volleyed with spirit. “No problem at all.”

The entrance to the hospital courtyard.
Surprised at this unexpected freedom, I clicked random pictures of patients waiting outside the various wards. The in-patient ward where AIDS patients came for care was to the right. Tucked behind it was the tuberculosis ward which sat next to the social services office.

People milled restlessly about. No one rushed. No one made much noise.

The main entrance to the hospital was too crowded to navigate with a preterm baby, so we skirted it suspiciously and gawked shamelessly at the ambulance which arrived to collect the hospitals newest transport.

A twisted patient on a stretcher was placed in its charge, presumably taking it to a larger hospital an hour away for more extensive care.

To the left of the main entrance lay the maternity ward where a half-dozen women waited their turn. Some ate while they waited, trying to escape the dusty noon time heat.

Dorcas went inside to talk to the midwives directly while I waited outside with her baby.
.... but then she didn’t return.

The hospital main grounds, just as you enter the courtyard.
Twenty minutes faded into thirty, so I decided to pop my head in and see what what going on.

I found Dorcas immediately but she didn’t look comfortable. She kept shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Four stern faces stood around her in a half-moon, but only one was talking. The mouthpiece was not happy... but in her defense, she didn’t appear to be rude. 

I couldn’t understand their words, so I flashed my best smile in an attempt to disarm them. But it didn’t work. All I got in return were icy stares and silence.

It was clear I’d not be visiting the maternity ward that day. Perhaps never.

What could Dorcas have possibly done to deserve such harsh words? I figured I’d wait for her escape before I asked.

Clearly unwanted, I walked out the front door and rocked Dorcas baby while I waited. A few minutes later, Dorcas found her retreat.

But as we adjusted her baby and blankets before our final escape, another midwife passed by, stopped, and started lecturing poor Dorcas again. Dorcas politely listened, but at first opportunity turned to me and walked me off the hospital grounds.

It was an obvious bust.

Later when I asked Dorcas over ice-cold Fanta and biscuits what they had said, I was not surprised.
-- “They said you could not come in without an official paper from the regional hospital director in Chimoio,” she began. “Then they lectured me about how foolish it would be for them to let you in.”
-- “Foolish? What do you mean?”
-- “They said ‘What if we let her in and she sees blood and faints? If she falls down and hits her head... she could die. Then we would get in big trouble. We cannot be responsible for her. No. She must have the right permission.’”

Apparently, the man who could give me the right permission was not working that day so we could not ask him. What’s more, they confessed to her they thought I was there to spy on them.

When Dorcas told me this, I had to dig a bit deeper. It stank of Cold War intrigue and the mass xenophobia so often found in post-Communist nations.
-- “What do you mean they are concerned I’m a spy?” I queried.
-- “They said that they were worried you were there to spy out what they are doing wrong and get them in trouble,” she explained with a chuckle. I had to chuckle with her. “They think you have come to write a report on how they are bad.”

Honestly... that is not completely wrong. I had no intention of getting anyone in trouble. I just wanted to see for myself if the rumors I kept hearing were true. I don’t doubt the rumors... for who would make up such atrocities?

Stories of beatings and blackmail. Stories of neglect and death. Stories I don’t want to repeat... but might one day write down. Maybe.

When I told Roy later that day what they said, he was not surprised. In fact, he laughed then said, “Guilty consciences often try to hide their sins.” After 27 years, he has heard more than one story from the hospital. All of them cannot be lies.

All I know is I did not find the warm hand of welcome that day. Not at all.